We’d pre­fer a deal, but we’re ready to fight

Merced Sun-Star (Saturday) - - Opinion - BY THE MERCED SUN-STAR ED­I­TO­RIAL BOARD

Five ap­pointed state reg­u­la­tors can do an enor­mous amount to help salmon and the state’s most-al­tered wa­ter sys­tem on Dec. 12. Or they guar­an­tee that wa­ter lawyers will stay busy for decades to come. It’s their choice. The State Wa­ter Re­sources Con­trol Board’s five mem­bers – in­clud­ing one added just Thurs­day – are sched­uled to vote on im­ple­ment­ing the Bay-Delta Plan’s Sub­sti­tute En­vi­ron­men­tal Doc­u­ment. If un­changed, the SED will re­quire 40 to 50 per­cent of the Stanis­laus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to flow unim­paired to the Delta, pur­port­edly for the sake of salmon. It would also re­quire vast amounts of wa­ter be left in cold stor­age be­hind the re­gion’s three dams to help salmon in an ever-warm­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

Such re­quire­ments will force farm­ers who de­pend on ir­ri­gation to fal­low thou­sands of acres, cost­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions in lost in­come and de­val­ued farm­land and killing hun­dreds of food-pro­cess­ing jobs.

Our state’s wa­ter prob­lems go far be­yond the Delta. Our in­fra­struc­ture was built to ac­com­mo­date 19 mil­lion peo­ple, not 40 mil­lion. We’ve wrecked the Sacra­mento-San Joaquin Delta by dik­ing it then pump­ing bil­lions of gal­lons hun­dreds of miles south. We never com­pleted the State Wa­ter Project that called for more dams in the north­ern­most part of the state.

The SED pur­ports to solve a tiny por­tion of those prob­lems. But adopt­ing it will ir­re­vo­ca­bly harm a mil­lion Cal­i­for­ni­ans liv­ing here – with­out any in­di­ca­tion it will work. It will also ig­nite a fe­ro­cious le­gal bat­tle led by our ir­ri­gation dis­tricts and the City and County of San Fran­cisco.

There’s an­other path: Vol­un­tary set­tle­ment agree­ments. In­tense ne­go­ti­a­tions have been un­der way since early Novem­ber when Gov. Jerry Brown and gover­nor­elect Gavin New­som jointly asked the wa­ter board to de­lay its vote for a month. Agree­ments could pro­vide help for salmon right away; adopt­ing the SED means all ef­forts cease and law­suits be­gin.

Any law­suit would ad­dress flaws in the state’s ridicu­lously low es­ti­mate of costs to our re­gion; its de­cep­tions through re­liance on out­dated sci­ence, and the wa­ter board’s de­sire to usurp 130 years of wa­ter law. All have im­pli­ca­tions for ev­ery wa­ter agency in the state, but the con­se­quences will be felt here first.

“Merced County as a whole is pretty low on the pole for in­come, em­ploy­ment and all those things,” said John Sweigard, a ne­go­tia­tor and gen­eral man­ager of Merced Ir­ri­gation District. “One thing we’ve got … (is) wa­ter. And that’s all we’ve got. Now peo­ple want to come af­ter that.”

Here’s what we need in any ne­go­ti­ated agree­ment: Dry-year off ramps. The dis­tricts are will­ing to sup­ply higher flows, but in con­sec­u­tive drought years they must be al­lowed to cut back. Salmon will sur­vive; they’ve evolved to read fresh-wa­ter sig­nals to en­sure spawn­ing con­di­tions are right.

No cold pools. Along with dou­bling flows, the SED de­mands con­trol of vast pools of cold wa­ter re­main­ing be­hind the dams – mak­ing it un­avail­able for ir­ri­gation. So is it 40 per­cent the state wants, or 60 per­cent?

Real sci­ence. The state’s “vet­ted” stud­ies are mostly from the 1990s. More re­cent stud­ies have re­futed their find­ings or cast data in a dif­fer­ent light – in­clud­ing the no­tion that higher flows are key to sav­ing fish. We must work from the same (hope­fully bet­ter) data. Rivers are red lines. The dis­tricts’ re­spon­si­bil­i­ties must end at the mouth of each river. We have no con­trol over the Delta, la­beled a “killing field” by sci­en­tists be­cause 97 per­cent of the young salmon that swim in never swim out.

We’re will­ing to help solve the state’s wa­ter prob­lems. But we will not be forced to ac­cept penal­ties just so oth­ers can pros­per. The state’s SED is bad pol­icy, driven by a po­lit­i­cal agenda and re­futed by the best avail­able sci­ence. If the state can’t meet our de­mands, it’s bet­ter to fight.

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